Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Stein Speech (Abridged)

The Edith Stein sections of my May speech about "The Theology of Woman: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and John Paul II" have appeared in their entirety on the Dzielne Niewiasty blog. Twenty-four paragraphs strikes me as a lot for one blog post. I will skip the biographical stuff and just post the theological overview.

All direct quotations from Saint Edith Stein come from "Essays on Woman," Volume 2 of The Collected Works of Edith Stein, translated by Freda Mary Oben. As this was a speech, I didn't create the ordinary scholarly apparatus. And let me tell you, I regretted this later when I was translating the quotes into Polish. (Had I written the citations, I could potentially have found the official Polish version of St. Edith Stein's writings and swiftly looked them up.)

By the way, I am putting up a new tip jar because we are in serious need of a new vacuum cleaner in our battle with the common British clothes moth. B.A. would also like you to know that I have been known to proofread and edit the English style of academic essays for $40/hr. I accept work only from people who are recommended by their professors, however, so this is not an ad to the students, but to any professors who would prefer that someone fix up their keen but illegible foreign students' essays before the professors have to read them. Theology a specialty.

St. Edith Stein's Theology of Woman

It is a miracle that Saint Edith’s manuscripts and notebooks survived the war. When, after her arrest, a bomb fell on her monastery in the Netherlands, the nuns and villagers ran around rescuing her papers from the wind and the rain. Her writings on women were eventually gathered into a volume called “Die Frau: Ihre Aufgabe nach Natur und Gnade”, which translated means “Woman: Her task according to nature and Grace.” This book has been translated into several languages including Polish, and I think that everyone with university-level reading comprehension should read it. The essays are challenging, but deeply helpful for men and women to understand woman’s nature and what she is called to do in the modern world.

Saint Edith examined the reality of what it is to be a woman from two sources: Scripture and her experience of living as a woman among women as a teacher of girls and women. Her philosophical training under Husserl taught her to subject everything she was told about women to the light of lived experience. (It is a failure to do this which led Aristotle, most dramatically, to make severe errors about women, which subsequent generations merely parroted, without examining lived realities.)

Saint Edith identified a woman as human, first of all, called to the same overall human project as men: to be the image of God, bring forth children and be masters over the earth. Men and women are in the image of God because they have reason. They bring forth physical or spiritual children. They are masters over the created earth in several ways: they are “to fight and conquer it; to understand it and by knowledge to make it [their] own, to possess and enjoy it, and finally, and to make it in a sense [their] own creation through purposeful activity.” But Saint Edith sees that men and women differ in the ways they use their reason, have children, and exercise their rule over their earth. For example, men have a tendency to concentrate on only one subject or aspect at a time, whereas women have a tendency to multi-task and see “the whole picture”. In this they compliment and correct each other.

Saint Edith also observes that women are much more interested in people and in helping others with their work than men are; men literally prefer to mind their own business. Unless economic necessity directs otherwise, most men gravitate towards subjects and professions involving physical strength, independence or abstract thought, whereas women gravitate towards professions that focus on helping people: medicine, teaching, social work, translation. However, she sees no profession to which women are not suited: she observes that women have unique gifts to bring to what have been male-dominated professions. There is no need for women to become like men in order to enter a profession: what is needful is that a woman enter the profession for which her own unique personal talents most suit her and in such a way that this profession does not interfere with her primary vocation which is, whether or not she literally gives birth, a mother.

Motherhood is key to Saint Edith Stein’s theology of woman, and her great model for motherhood is Mary, Mother of God. Just as Our Lord Jesus Christ is the “New Adam” who frees humanity from the sin of Adam, so the Mother of God is the “New Eve” by whom Our Lord Jesus Christ enters the world. Eve was tempted by the serpent and sinned; Mary did not sin and gave birth to the Son who defeated the serpent.

Because the New Adam and the New Eve are mother and child, Saint Edith infers that woman’s most important role towards humanity is not her role as a wife, but her role as mother. Indeed, even a married woman’s role as a human wife is subordinate to her call to be a mother, which is to say, motherly. Edith talks of a spiritual motherhood, not just a physical motherhood; many women who do not have children, like female religious or other unmarried women, have a vast capacity for maternal love than can and should be used for the whole community. It is, in fact, a feminine gift which can help women become more like the Mother of God.

Jednakże w badaniach Księgi Rodzaju... Just kidding!

But in her studies of Genesis, Edith Stein notes two things in particular: that Adam was made before Eve and that Eve was made as a helper and a companion for Adam. She reflects that by having been created first, Adam seems to have a certain precedence over Eve. This masculine precedence is echoed in the fact that Our Lord Jesus Christ chose to live His humanity as a man. Thus, Saint Edith does not depart from the belief that woman was made for man, to be a helper and a companion for the man. And she sees in women around her an earnest desire to be helpful and to be companions for men. However, she notes that before the Fall, the relationship between man and woman was not the relationship of domination and submission it became after the Fall. Man’s tyranny over women is a result of Original Sin and should have no part of the redemption brought by Our Lord Jesus Christ. She notes that Adam showed what a bad master he was going to be when he immediately blamed Eve for giving him the apple.

Saint Edith has a keen sense that we still live under the effects of Original Sin and whenever she talks about humanity, femininity or masculinity, she always notes that we have a fallen humanity, a fallen femininity and a fallen masculinity. (She notes, too, that certain men have more developed feminine characteristics, and certain women have more developed masculine characteristics). Men have to strive against the fallen aspects of masculinity just as women have to strive against the fallen aspects of femininity. For example, men are more likely to become very narrow in their attitude towards the world: striving only for one thing or one goal, to the neglect of other needful things, including the feelings of other people. Women, however, with our interest in other people are more likely to become involved in other people’s business in a meddlesome way. And Stein also warns that if women become narrow in our approach to the world, we become narrow in a particularly dangerous way, abandoning abstract thought and creative action to focus solely on the possession and enjoyment of a good life. Our “reverent joy in the things of this world degenerates into greed” leading us to hoard things we don’t need, or to lapse “into a mindless, idle life of sensuality. “ We can well imagine what she means — ultimately to live for food, romance, entertainment and shopping.

Our primary model for overcoming the fallenness of our female nature is, for Saint Edith, the Mother of God. Not only is the Mother of God a model of obedience and openness to God, of marriage and of motherhood, but of how we should do our paid work. She writes, “Mary at the wedding of Cana in her quiet, observing look surveys everything and discovers what is lacking. Before anything is noticed, even before embarrassment sets in, she had procured the remedy. She finds ways and means, she gives necessary directives, doing all quietly. She draws no attention to herself. Let her be the prototype of women in professional life. Wherever situated, let her always perform her work quietly and dutifully, without claiming attention and appreciation. And at the same time, she should survey the conditions with vigilant eye. Let her be conscious of where there is a want and where help is needed, intervening and regulating as far as it is possible in her power in a discreet way. Then she will like a good spirit spread blessing everywhere.”

What Saint Edith was proposing was a radical departure from the arguments around the Woman Question. Instead of asserting with the feminists that women were the same as men, and therefore equal, or with the traditionalists that women were different from men, and therefore unequal, she asserted that women were both different from men and equal to men, with just one caveat: that men had some kind of precedence shown by the fact that Adam was created first and by the fact that Our Blessed Saviour chose to live His human life as a man. This precedence, however, does not mean that female life is any less important. Indeed, Stein points out that a woman’s assent — Eve’s to the serpent and then Mary’s to God — “determined the destiny of humanity as a whole.” And while Saint Edith affirmed that men, whose primary vocation seems to leadership, and fatherhood a secondary part of this leadership, are the heads of their families, she notes that a good leader knows when to deputize. She writes that “the husband will find that [the wife] will give him invaluable advice in guiding the lives of their children as well as themselves; indeed, often he would fulfil his duties as a leader best if he would yield to her and permit himself to be led by her.”

Meanwhile, Saint Edith put the good of the man and woman’s family life before any professional consideration. She is deeply concerned for the happiness of women who, through no choice of their own, find that their professional work conflicts with their responsibilities to their families. She notes that such a conflict is a heavier burden on mothers than it is on fathers. She asserts that “Any social condition is an unhealthy one which compels [my emphasis] married women to seek gainful employment and makes it impossible for them to manage their home. And we should accept as normal that the married woman is restricted to domestic life at a time when her household duties exact her total energies.” I think Saint Edith Stein would support a movement to grant Polish mothers more than just 20 weeks of maternity leave.

Saint Edith’s theology of woman is also the source for the notion of the complementarity of men and women: the idea that men and women, working together, combining masculine and feminine characteristics, create a balanced whole, not only in family life, but in professional and national life, as well. Saint Edith’s work is so well known today because of her most famous disciple, who never met her, and was in Kraków when Saint Edith was murdered with her sister in Auschwitz. I speak, of course, of Saint Jan Paweł II.

---from "A Speech about the Theology of Women of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and St. John Paul II to the Dzielne Niewiasty in Kraków, Poland on May 4, 2014 " by Dorothy Cummings McLean.


mk said...

What an excellent read, I would love to have heard this talk!

Sheila said...

20 weeks?! Here in America we get six tops ... and the law, so far as I know, doesn't require that we get any. I know women who have gone back to work after mere days, which is unimaginable to me even just on a physical level. But if any "leave" you get is unpaid, sometimes you can't afford to take more.

I disagree with Edith Stein about a lot of things. But I do agree very much with this: "Saint Edith infers that woman’s most important role towards humanity is not her role as a wife, but her role as mother. Indeed, even a married woman’s role as a human wife is subordinate to her call to be a mother, which is to say, motherly."

I keep hearing, especially in Catholic circles, how very crucial it is to put your husband before your kids because you will destroy your marriage and leave your kids fatherless if you don't. And certainly this was my mother's attitude -- she never failed to remind me that she didn't love me as much as she loved my father, which upset me every time. But I can't imagine Our Lady saying to her Son, "Joseph will always come first in my heart, and you will come second." Rather, I think there's a different kind of love for each -- a love of duty/vocation for the children, and a love of companionship for one's husband. I would indeed save my kids from a burning building first, and hope my husband made it out on his own; but if you asked me who I'd rather spend a free evening with, I'd pick my husband every time. My kids need me in a way my husband doesn't; but my husband is capable of giving back to me as my kids never will.

Thoughts on that?

Seraphic said...

My first thought is that marriage and parenthood should never be treated as rivals. Marriage is for parenthood--and also for the man and woman to find comfort in a relationship with each other. Procreative and then unitive, not the other way around, and never one to the exclusion of the other.

I think your mother made a wrong call by telling you that. I cannot imagine its purpose unless to stress that you kids could not play one parent off another. Still, that would be a million times better way of putting it.

In any family emergency, I would help the children first. That is what adults are supposed to do. You save the children.

Seraphic said...

My first thought is that marriage and parenthood should never be treated as rivals. Marriage is for parenthood--and also for the man and woman to find comfort in a relationship with each other. Procreative and then unitive, not the other way around, and never one to the exclusion of the other.

I think your mother made a wrong call by telling you that. I cannot imagine its purpose unless to stress that you kids could not play one parent off another. Still, that would be a million times better way of putting it.

In any family emergency, I would help the children first. That is what adults are supposed to do. You save the children.

Seraphic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jam said...

This is great; St Edith is so terribly important! Much superior to pseudo-historical moralizing built around the attempt to recreate some kind of "before" picture.

The question of what exactly male precedence adds up to is an interesting one. I suppose one interpretation is simply that exact equality or interchangeability is not something to be sought after.

Sheila said...

My mother would usually bring it up if I begged for her to sleep in my bed instead of with my dad, or if I asked her to keep a (female-type) secret from my dad, or if I asked her to say she loved me most. I can think of much better ways to answer all of those things, but she had been told by well-meaning people that kids are insecure unless they know their parents love each other best. I see that advice still on mothering forums and so forth, and I argue with it every time I see it. I tell people they should tell their kids, "I love everyone in this family, and everyone will always get the love they need. No one is going to be left out. Your need to wait sometimes because someone else needs something more than you do, but when you really need something, other people will wait for you." Something like that. Anything rather than the suggestion that some are loved more than others!

And, of course, the dark side of this is that if your spouse is abusing your children, your duty is to protect the children, by whatever means necessary. And in that case, the one who ruined the marriage is not you but the abuser.

Nzie said...

Thanks for sharing it, Seraphic - very interesting.

Domestic Diva said...


My favorite quote: "The husband will find that [the wife] will give him invaluable advice in guiding the lives of their children as well as themselves; indeed, often he would fulfil his duties as a leader best if he would yield to her and permit himself to be led by her."

I see a resurgence among both traditional Catholics and conservative Protestants of "wives be submissive to your husbands." Of course St. Paul (and God) meant this in a very healthy way; much of what I'm seeing lived out is not healthy: wives not giving husbands their opinion even when the husband is clearly taking the family down the wrong road; wives not advocating for their own needs or the needs of the children when the husband is clearly being selfish. In some cases, I've seen wives advocate submission to husbands who were allowing their wives to be demeaned by others (eg - adult stepchildren) or to husbands who were abusing their wives. "God will honor my submission," is the general response I get from such wives when I point out the problem. This drives me absolutely batty.

My mother is a go-getter and my father is more retiring, and outsiders might think mom's the boss. Not so. My parents are a TEAM. Nothing can get my father moving faster than the thought that someone is hurting my mom, even if that someone is him. They have their spats and irritations, but Dad has always listened to what Mom thinks and what she needs. Their complementary points of view make for better decisions in family life.

Thank you, Edith Stein, for pointing out the dignity and equality of women...without equating women with men.

Magdalena said...

Thank you for sharing your very interesting thoughts! When I read St Edith Stein’s essays, this thing about men having a certain kind of precedence over women really bothered me. But then I read the bit where she talks about religious life and that there is no real difference between the vocations of (non-priest) monks and nuns. Indeed, the vocation of monks has a lot of specific “female” characteristics, their task being to represent the Church as the bride of Christ with all the “bridal” devotion and orienting their life completely towards the bridegroom. The church as a whole is female in her role as bride of Christ and mother of the faithful, and it includes men as well as women. So men have a kind of precedence over women, representing Christ and so on, but at the same time women represent the church (ideally that would be all mankind), which also contains all the men. Ha. That was quite an eye-opener for me.

I never thought of Mary being a role model for doing paid work! I will keep it in mind.

Sheila, what is it you disagree about with Edith Stein? I am just interested (don’t want to start some stupid discussion here).

Sheila said...

Well, mainly it's that I *don't* think that men have any precedence over women. So they were created first. The fish were created before the cattle, too -- doesn't make them better! And yes, Christ was male ... but didn't he sort of have to be? God's Son *had* to be born of a woman, and if he also had been a woman himself, men would have had no role in salvation. But in salvation as in creation, both men and women are inseparably involved.

I also didn't like how she said that a woman is primarily mother, but a man's role of father isn't his primary role. I don't see why she says that, when fatherhood is essential too, even when fatherhood is sometimes exercised very differently from motherhood. And is it necessarily true that men are drawn to mastery and women to relationship? I'm not sure, and she seems to throw it out there as if it were obvious. Maybe some of her assumptions come from the time in which she was writing, when gender roles were a lot more carved in stone than they are now, so that she wasn't really thinking of stay-at-home dads and rocket scientist mothers. Perhaps she thought that would never happen.

Like everything ever written about gender, I find myself concluding, "Well, IF it seems true and is useful, go with it, but if it doesn't fit, throw it out." Otherwise we find ourselves try to shoehorn experience into someone else's description of it.

Amused said...

Beautiful post! Thanks, Seraphic. I am a bit confused about "men have a certain precedence" thing. I incline to think there's something in it, but what? Surely men are not "more valuable" or more "noble" than women? I hate the whole comparison thing, but if this isn't a comparison, what is it? I'd really like to understand this better, but I find it incredibly murky....

Magdalena said...

Thank you, Sheila, I appreciate your response! Fish were created before cattle… hahaha, indeed! (I feel a bit stupid right now, because that thought has never occurred to me before.)

Only thinking a little more (with my 12.40 a.m. brain): I don’t like the thought of predefined gender roles, which I don’t think I fit in very well, but at least E.S. repeated over and over again that the deviation from the “average” male or female personality can be very great. And E.S. must have been aware of gender roles that were very different from what we usually think everybody took for granted 100 years ago. Her mother had a business and was away from home most of the day, her sister was a working mother (a doctor), and she herself was a “rocket philosopher”; she worked extremely hard and never had to run a household (I seem to remember that when she entered the Carmel, she was more or less useless for any kind of housework). Of course she was a “spiritual mother” to many people. So, I don’t know what makes her emphasize male and female characteristics and their special roles so much. Well, if women were not much appreciated for the work most of them did in those times (leading a household), it makes sense to emphasize the worth and importance of this kind of work.

Seraphic said...

I think it was the debate at the time, with feminists claiming (as they do now, when it suits them) that women are just the same as men. Women clearly aren't just the same as men.

But St. Edith also qualifies that some men have pronounced feminine characteristics and some women have pronounced masculine characteristics. She thinks this a good thing.

Of course, that can be messed up, too. A woman who has great upper body strength and zeal to fight fires would of course make a great firefighter. However, the same masculine qualities of upper body strength and physical aggression might tempt her to beat up her husband.

Even in women, masculinity is fallen, and even in men, femininity is fallen, too. An affectionate, gentle, painstaking man would make a good nurse, but the same qualities might make him clingy.

Anyway, Saint Edith does not have a strict, cut and dried sense that all-women-are-feminine and all-men-are-masculine. Her work merely reveals that women in general are more feminine than men and men in general are more masculine than women, and that they complement and correct the other sex's strengths and weaknesses.

I don't think Edith would characterize any profession as masculine or feminine. She would think there were feminine and masculine approaches, both good, to coal-mining, for example, or studying physics. Marie Curie, who brought X-rays onto the battlefield, comes to mind. So does Florence Nightingale, whom everyone thinks of as a pioneering nurse, but was also a scientist of great importance.

Seraphic said...

Oh, and I think Edith emphasized feminine difference so much to stress that it was GOOD. One of the problems that continues into our time is the idea that "man stuff" is better than "woman stuff." Occasionally we have got men to admit that motherhood is the most noble profession there is, but that's over now that so many women have denied it.

We want to be Prime Minister, not the mother of Prime Ministers, even if we actually have few of the qualities we need to advance in a political party. Heck, I couldn't survive academic politics. We want not to be the FIRST this or that, but the FIRST FEMALE this or that--an attitude which drives me insane, in part because I shared it until Kim Campbell became the first female Prime Minister of Canada (and very soon a laughing stock, I'm sorry to say).

Of course, a lot of her ideas about feminine ways of doing then-masculine-dominated professions we take so much for granted we can no longer see how this is true. For example, women have transformed office culture. When offices were completely dominated by men, they were highly hierarchical and nobody brought in brownies. I doubt people talked about sex, families and children all day, either. Brownies=good, intrusive personal chatter=bad.

Sheila said...

I think the disdain for "women's things" is one of the main problems of the world today. Cooking is too menial, so no one does it (and we all get fat and unhealthy on fast food). Childcare is drudgery, so no one does it (and the kids are neglected). All the work of the home, from cleaning to clipping coupons, is worthless and we all choose to just spend more money rather than do it -- putting more power in the hands of corporations and less in the hands of ourselves.

I think if more men did "women's work" from time to time -- if they made the habit of taking paternity leave, if they left work right at five to pick up their kids, if they cooked dinner once in awhile -- perhaps these sorts of things would start being more respected and just what everyone does as part of being a human being, rather than a less-valued kind of work given over to a less-valued kind of person.

And in the meantime, women at least have to keep doing these things, even if means we have to work twice as hard as men do, just because *someone* has to do them or society will fall apart. Duty is like that; you can't wait on somebody else to do what they're supposed to before you'll do what needs to be done.